Of Stars and Wildernesses

As an intern spiritual director, I have a supervisor I visit once a month. She is there to provide support for me in my work with individuals on their spiritual journeys, and she is truly a gift from God. 

Usually during our sessions together, we talk about my growing edges as a director, the places where I stumble or falter when working with others and the places I’m finding my stride. But this particular time, we ended up just talking about me. Not me in the role of director, but me as Christianne.

I found myself telling her about my struggles through the dying process, and specifically my struggle to feel surrounded and loved by God and others. I told her I feel alone and that I wished there were more people I could look to for guidance on how to do this. I told her that I feel the need to be strong in all my respective spheres of life, and I shared examples of how that shows up in my life right now. I told her that this need to be strong and have something to offer feels particularly pronounced for me right now.

“Do you want to let go of this need to be strong?” she asked. 

After a pause, I answered, “Yes.” After an even longer pause, I added, “But that feels incredibly scary. I feel like I’d lose something essential if I let go.”

She invited me to talk to God about what I felt I would lose, and this is what came out:

God, I feel so far removed from you right now. I hate that. I don’t know how to trust you in this place. I keep trying to be strong. And I keep wanting to shine brighter than everything and everyone around me. I guess I feel like shining the brightest, like being the brightest star of all, would make you notice me, and then maybe you would love me. But you already love me. You love me in this place, somehow. Help me learn to receive that love.

When I finished praying, I looked up. My supervisor gazed gently back at me. She said, “Sometimes when people pray, an image comes to me that, if shared, sometimes provides perspective that is helpful. When you were praying, and you mentioned shining like the brightest star, I was reminded of how stars form. Do you know how they form?”

I shook my head. Science was never my strong suit.

“Well, if my science brain is remembering this correctly, stars form through a type of death — all the gases swirling around until they reach a critical mass and explode, or implode, and then reconfigure into something totally new, something new that shines.”

This gave me so much to think about. For one, it helped me reframe the destructive nature of death as something constructive, something that reconstitutes into positive light, just as our faith teaches us has happened through Christ’s own death and resurrection. Additionally, it reminded me that this is not a light I can generate on my own. It somehow comes about through my death.

So when I got home, I did some research. It turns out, her memory had served her well. Stars do form from a swirling of gases and dust that reach critical mass and implode. They collapse under the density of their own weight, in fact, almost as though sustaining their own strength becomes too much work. And what’s more, it is only through that eventual process of collapse that a heated center can finally form — a heated entity that will eventually become the shining star. I was also fascinated to learn that it is the nuclear fusion of hydrogen and helium at the center of a star that keeps it from collapsing again under its own weight and gives it the energy it needs to keep shining in the sky.

Who knew God was the energy fueling nuclear fusion in the universe?

Needless to say, this is having an immense impact on me. The image of a star and how it comes into being through collapse and is sustained by an inner heat and light has remained with me for days. It is helping me to remember that the collapse of strength is a good thing and that it is the light and heat of Christ that is the real shininess in me that endures. 

As if that weren’t gift enough, yet another image emerged during my supervision session that has become important to hold near to my heart inside this dying season, as well.

It came about when my supervisor asked me what I felt I most needed right now. 

After thinking about that a moment, I answered, “To be loved … by others and by God. Being loved by others would make me feel less alone, and being loved by God would counter the belief I keep having that he feels disdain for me right now.”

She asked me if perhaps there is another person included in that equation: namely, myself. I could see where she was coming from. Was it possible that my inability to accept my limitations and imperfections in this season were putting a barrier between me and the love others and God might already be freely extending to me?

I wasn’t sure about this, but I began to sit quietly with that thought. And what came to mind was an image.

I saw myself walking in a barren wilderness. It looked like it had formerly been a forest, for there were dead stumps of trees and dead limbs and branches strewn all about, and I was having to climb around and over them to make any kind of slow progress. I had no map. I had no backpack. There was absolutely no discernible path. It was just me, alone in the wilderness, with a dense fog pushing down on this boggy place that made the place — and me — feel even more deserted and lonely than we already were.

As I looked at that image of myself in that scene, I felt an immense wave of compassion roll over me. I found myself thinking, Of course you’re afraid. Of course you feel lost. You’ve never been here before. You haven’t yet learned this terrain. This is all so new, and it’s hard. It really is hard.

I could suddenly see my attempts of late to be strong for what they really were: my most instinctual coping mechanisms for navigating an unknown place.

This is a concept my friend Sara and I visit a lot. We have a theory about human nature. This theory is that we as human beings, when presented with a new invitation to grow, will usually revert back to the oldest coping mechanisms we have on hand to respond to the uncomfortable, mysterious newness of that unknown place — no matter how long ago we unlearned those coping mechanisms or how far beyond them we have since grown. 

That’s what I’ve been about in this dying place of late. Being strong and performing perfectly are my oldest known survival skills. And when I’m flailing about and disoriented, as I have been of late, they’re what I’ll return to for some sense of safety and control.

When I shared this image of the wilderness with my supervisor, she asked what I might like to say to that girl — myself — in the image. I closed my eyes and, after a few silent moments, began to talk to her. I said:

I see you. 

You are in a place you’ve never been. It’s difficult to navigate. There’s debris everywhere, and you have no map. I can understand why you’d be scared. It’s a scary, unknown place. But you’re not alone. I see you.

You are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now. You’re not expected to have it figured out. Just keep walking. Eventually, you’ll reach the city. But in the meantime, this is where you are meant to be.

Just keep walking. And if you need to, rest.

You’re beautiful. I love you.

As I said these words to her, I felt aware that I was saying them to myself. But I also felt aware that these were the same words God was speaking over me. He sees me. He knows it is disorienting. He knows I am scared and wondering how to do this. But I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Eventually, I’ll reach the city. But for now, he invites me to just keep walking. To rest if the need arises. To be loved as his beautiful one.

For a while, I was so overwhelmed by the power of this contemplative moment of prayer that I couldn’t open my eyes or speak. I sat there in silence, taking it in and basking in the grace of it all. 

There is such grace in this place. The theme of grace was central to the previous leg of my faith journey, and I guess I’m beginning to find it is here in the dying season, too. Perhaps grace — the ability to rest in our humanity because the love of God enfolds us utterly — is what it is always, always about. No matter what season we’re in.